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All About Cluster Feeding

As a midwife and lactation consultant one of the most common conversations I have with my clients goes like this:

Midwife: How is breastfeeding going?

Mom: It is ok, but I do not make enough milk, so I am breastfeeding and formula feeding. Sometimes I pump and give her what I get but I do not always have time to pump.

Midwife: What is going on with baby that worries you about not making enough milk?

Mom: My baby is constantly hungry. She wants to breastfeed around the clock. Sometimes she breastfeeds every hour. Sometimes it is short feedings and sometimes long feedings. I feel like she is at the breast all day and I am worried she is not getting enough from me.

Most women can make plenty of milk for their baby. There are some medical reasons and circumstances when a woman is not able to keep up with their baby’s demand, but a healthy woman with a healthy full-term baby that is exclusively breastfeeding from birth can absolutely keep up with their baby’s needs. The milk supply you produce is driven by the baby’s demand and this is regulated by cluster feeding. Cluster feeding usually starts on day 2 of life and goes in cycles and continues throughout your breastfeeding journey. Cycles usually last 3-4 days (so don’t worry, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel!) and occur every 2 to 6 weeks depending on age.

Babies are so smart and know exactly what they need to grow and thrive. They recognize when a growth spurt is about to happen, and they cluster feed a few days prior to that growth spurt to increase your milk supply. They do this so that they can sit back and enjoy the extra milk that is already on board that they told your body to make three days prior. This way they are not burning energy while growing. Often women think baby is in the growth spurt while they are in the cluster phase, but the growth spurt is actually after the cluster phase. They are growing when the feedings are longer, and they are sleeping longer.

Also, baby cluster feeds for other reasons as they get older. For moms who work outside the home, they may notice that their little one cluster feeds a lot in the evening and before bed. This is true for all ages. A 3-month-old or a 2-year-old will do this for the same reasons. One, this helps you keep your supply up and they know that (baby is a better pump than your pump at work, and this is also great because if they are going to hit a growth spurt in a few days then they are increasing your supply by breastfeeding and you do not have to worry about adding so many extra pumping sessions while at work), and two, this is their way of saying welcome home, I love you. Breastfeeding is your baby’s way of communicating. When they are calm and happy at the breast, they are telling you they are ok, you are their favorite person, and this routine works well for them.

Lastly, trusting the process is so important as cluster feeding is a tool for your baby to help them meet their needs. Sometimes babies cluster feed to self sooth if they are not feeling well or are over tired or over stimulated. They will always know what their need is before you will, that is ok. Allowing for cluster feeding builds trust with your baby and you can rest easy knowing you are meeting a need, even if you are unsure of the need being met.

This article was written for Work & Mother by Ann Gabaldon. Ann is an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) practicing full scope midwifery care in New Mexico. For discounts and member exclusives on products and services to help with breastfeeding, visit our Shop and Tenant Log-In pages.

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